Team Science Leads the Way – But Hero Science Still Looms Large

Artwork by Mengmeng Tu, MSc Science Communication student

This festive period, Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

When it comes to tackling the world’s biggest health challenges, teamwork makes the dream work for Professor Wiebke Arlt, Director of the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (LMS). Here, she discusses why it’s time that contemporary science shifted from a hero science to a team science approach – one based on productive collaboration rather than wasteful competition.

Going it alone is often glorified as the breakthrough way of achieving major milestones. However, if you look closely, most of these are achieved in a team effort and not by single individuals. Our perception of heroes rather than teams is often driven by the narrative and not the facts: when I was a child, I learnt that Edmund Hillary was the first to climb the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. Now I know that Hillary achieved this feat together with the Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. Reading up on it, I discovered that they didn’t walk up the mountain on their own, but they were part of a large expedition team that worked together to achieve the goal. Hillary and Norgay were the second pair to be deployed as part of a systematic team approach to conquering the mountain.

This is very similar to the first human step on the moon taken by Neil Armstrong – seeing him take this step on a grainy black and white TV was a defining memory from my early childhood. Neil Armstrong is a hero to many but in fact he was only one of hundreds of astronauts and thousands of scientists and engineers who worked together for many years to achieve the moon landing, contributing original ideas and complementary expertise along the way. Only a few years ago I learnt about the key roles of women in the US space programme, including three African American mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

New solutions need different perspectives

Teamwork makes the dream work – this is what I experience every day, as a biomedical scientist and similarly as a doctor in the NHS. The complexity of the biomedical problems we need to address requires an integrated team approach, with team members who bring different perspectives and expertise to solving the problems. In my workplace, the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (LMS), we are interested in the mechanisms underpinning human health and disease. We study how these mechanisms involve genes, cells and metabolism, and how they are influenced by ageing, sex differences and the environment. We want to understand how these mechanisms contribute to the burden associated with ageing and multi-morbidity, including chronic cardiometabolic disease and rare and complex disease.

To achieve this, we bring together many different people at the LMS: biologists, biochemists and clinician scientists, as well as physicists, chemists, computer scientists and engineers. Working in a rich interdisciplinary environment, enhanced by our host Imperial College London, is exciting and provides different perspectives on the same problem. This creates opportunities to find new solutions, including new ways to test, stratify and treat disease. Importantly, we want to go one step further and promote transdisciplinary science at the LMS. This means we do not only aim to integrate different scientific disciplines but also to listen to many other perspectives from the outset, including those from public, patients, entrepreneurs and industry.

Transdisciplinary mission

Bringing together fundamental discovery scientists and clinician scientists to work as a team is a key part of our transdisciplinary mission at the LMS. Our clinician scientists in training are the Chain-Florey Fellows. This name draws from an early example of such a collaboration. Ernst Chain was a refugee biochemist from Germany and Howard Florey a migrant clinician scientist from Australia. They worked together in the late 1930s to develop penicillin for fighting infections. Chain and Florey worked in a large team of scientists with complementary skills including Edward Abraham, Norman Heatley and Margaret Jennings. Penicillin had been serendipitously discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but the work of the team around Chain and Florey enabled its use in patients, saving millions of lives.

The Nobel Prize, the most prestigious accolade in science, was awarded in 1945 to Fleming, Chain and Florey. However, particularly Florey always insisted that the development and successful translation of penicillin into clinical practice was a team effort. He felt that he got more individual credit than he deserved through the recognition by the Nobel prize. Maybe it is time to consider changing the statutes of the Nobel Prize, which at present can only be awarded to up to three individuals rather than teams. The experimental discovery of the Higgs particle by the teams working at the Large Hadron Collider was transformative for physics, but due to the Nobel rules the prize could not be awarded to the successful team involving thousands of scientists from more than 40 countries.

In science, recognition of individual achievement rather than contribution to team science is sadly still the major basis of career progression. This belies the fact that major scientific breakthroughs today can only be achieved by team networking rather than lone hero scientists. We need to call for and create change in how science and scientists are assessed, to promote a culture of productive collaboration rather than wasteful competition. The future of scientific research is team science, but hero science still looms large – we need to work together as scientific community to change this. As called for in the UK Academy of Medical Science’s 2016 report on team science, a collaborative approach also requires training and reflection beyond mere science: “Key skills such as networking, leadership, management, assertiveness, and resolving conflict are critical for ensuring that team science projects are successful and beneficial to those participating.”

Embracing equity, diversity and inclusion

Working in teams also provides unique opportunities to embrace equity, diversity and inclusion. Prismatic perspectives from many different angles are crucial for solving major challenges. We need novel, original and unique perspectives from women scientists, first generation scholars, scientists from low-resource backgrounds and immigrant scientists. To achieve this, we need to work on dismantling the obstacles that currently prevent them from contributing to science in large numbers.

Lastly, science is global and has no borders. I am excited every day by the diversity of our international community at the LMS including PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, technical specialists, group leaders and operational staff – LMS potluck parties are legendary!

It is the most fabulous Christmas present that next month UK science is officially regaining access to one of the greatest team science incubators on earth, the European Horizon Programme.

Further Reading, Watching & Exploring

Breaking the Mould – How a team around Howard Florey and Ernst Chain developed penicillin as a life saver for the world (BBC Movie, 2009)

Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science (US National Academies, Report 2015)

Improving recognition of team science contributions in biomedical research careers (Report by the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2016)

Hidden Figures -The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space programme (Movie, 2016) – Official Trailer

Academy of Medical Sciences Team Science Image Competition

The National Cancer Institute Science of Team Science Initiative (NCI SciTS) Toolkit (Update 2021)

Joint Statement by the European Commission and the UK Government on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe

Professor Wiebke Arlt is Director of the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (LMS). An award-winning clinical endocrinologist, Professor Arlt is also Professor of Transdisciplinary Medicine and Director of the Institute of Clinical Sciences at the Imperial College London Faculty of Medicine. She is Honorary Consultant Physician at the Department of Endocrinology at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.